Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Apologise and retract? Not bloody likely

Several weeks ago I wrote a newspaper column that was republished on this blog under the heading The self-righteous rage of the Left. I referred to anti-G20 riots in Hamburg and a violent pro-government mob that attacked opposition MPs in Venezuela and I asked why, when political violence had so often been associated in the past with the extreme Right, it was now commonly perpetrated by the Left.

I didn’t just use overseas examples. I pointed out that in New Zealand, although we rarely experience overt political violence, it’s the Left that assumes a moral right to disrupt events that they don’t approve of or to howl down opinions they don’t like. Occasional direct assaults on politicians (thankfully rarely harmful) are also invariably perpetrated by leftists.

Since I wrote that column there’s been a furore over a couple of protest marches by white supremacists and other far-Right agitators in the United States. In one shocking incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, one of these angry white misfits struck out at counter-protesters by driving his car at them, killing a woman and injuring others.

Perhaps predictably, someone on Facebook has now challenged me to retract what I wrote about acts of intolerance by the angry Left, and to apologise. Presumably he reasons that the incident in Charlottesville negated everything I said. But there is nothing to retract and still less to apologise for. What I wrote stands. In fact you could even say my point has been reinforced.

First, and most obvious, what happened in Charlottesville doesn’t alter the fact that here in New Zealand, it’s the angry Left, not those on the conservative side of politics, that repeatedly asserts the right to stage protests which interfere with other people’s right to say or hear things that the Left disagrees with.

Second, whatever you might think about the people in Charlottesville who marched in protest against the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E Lee, they have a right of free speech. And no matter how much we might disapprove of their beliefs, they are as entitled to exercise that right as the Left is. The moment free speech is circumscribed by limitations on what sort of speech is permissible, it ceases to exist.

In any case, obnoxious opinions aren’t defeated or magically made to vanish by trying to force them underground. What’s far more likely, as we saw in Charlottesville, is that those who hold them will strike back in defiance.  

So here’s a novel suggestion. Let the morons march. Allow them the same right to protest that the Left insists on, but ignore them. Pay them no attention. Deny them the oxygen of media exposure.

Staging large, boisterous counter-protests plays into their hands. First, it fuels their martyrdom complex. It encourages their perception of themselves as a heroic minority defending traditional white American values against degenerate liberalism.

And of course journalists and camera crews turn up, expecting a stoush. The tension gets ramped up, people start shouting taunts and insults at each other and before long they’re brawling. It’s all over the TV news bulletins that night and the white supremacists have got more exposure than they probably dreamed of.

Imagine how things might play out if these sad, pathetic Neanderthals were left to parade down empty streets watched only by a handful of cops and a stray dog or two. But the Left is incapable of restraining its own overwhelming self-righteousness. By insisting on confrontation, it becomes part of the problem.

In fact it seems clear that in the second of the recent violent American protests, in Boston, most of the trouble was caused by the Left. It was the supposedly liberal counter-protesters who screamed abuse, burned Confederate flags (a gratuitously provocative act), menaced marchers, threw things and assaulted cops. And for what reason? The organisers had promoted the event as a Free Speech Rally. They had distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists of Charlottesville.  But the Left was so pumped-up with rage that what should have been a peaceful event turned into a riot. You have to ask, who was the bigger threat here?

So in answer to the person on Facebook who thinks I should retract and apologise because of what happened in Charlottesville (the Left loves nothing more than intimidating people into giving craven apologies), I say: no chance. Not only was the Charlottesville incident an isolated occurrence, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if the Left hadn’t felt compelled to put on a big display of virtuous opposition.


In fact I’d go further and say that while I loathe and detest the cave-dwellers of the ultra-Right, there’s something almost fascistic in the overwhelming shows of force that the American Left seems determined to muster against what is generally puny and pathetic opposition.   

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Greens pay the price for one woman's hubris

(Published in The Dominion Post, August 11.)

This was going to be a Turei-free column. Honest. But how can anyone ignore what has been arguably the most tumultuous fortnight in politics since 1984?

My colleague Tom Scott had a cartoon in Wednesday’s paper in which a priest asked a boy: “What has Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud and the Green Party’s subsequent meltdown taught us?”

The boy’s answer: “Never admit to making a mistake even 25 years later.”

That’s a legitimate interpretation of what happened, but my take on it is slightly different.

I think most people are prepared to forgive politicians for things they did when they were a lot younger and prone to bad judgments. But I don’t think it was Turei’s admission of benefit fraud that turned people against her.

What repelled many people was the air of sanctimony that accompanied her confession, as if she had done something noble and virtuous.

People noted that she made this declaration a few weeks out from the election. She said she did it to start a conversation about welfare, but it looked like a calculated play for votes: a dog-whistle. Turei may have been hoping to tap into that same tranche of disenchanted young non-voters that came out behind Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States.

The tactic seemed to work, initially at least. The Left was desperate for a hero – remember, this was before Jacinda Ardern stepped up – and Turei seemed to fit the part. For a few days she bathed in the warm glow of the Left’s adulation.

But then things started to fall apart. A backlash started to build, one that was spontaneous and broad-based rather than orchestrated by Turei’s political foes. You could see it building on social media, on talkback radio and in letters to the editor.

By the time Turei was summoned to an interview with WINZ investigators, she was looking decidedly less cocky. She had also changed her tune. From being airily non-committal at first about whether she would repay the taxpayers’ money she had illegally pocketed, it was now: “I’m very clear that I will certainly be repaying any over-payment.”

But things were to get messier yet. Turei didn’t seem to grasp that lifting the lid on something from her past would only encourage reporters to go digging around for other things that might be interesting.

Once that happened, she ceased to be in control of where things were going. That should be Media 101 for politicians.

Sure enough, other facts began to emerge: first a wrong address on the electoral roll and then the rather inconvenient fact that the father of her child was listed as living at the same property – a bad look when she had claimed the DPB. It even turned out her mother had been one of her flatmates while she was defrauding Work and Income by not revealing income from other people in the house.

The cumulative effect was that Turei was soon looking less like a heroic crusader and more like someone who had sneakily gamed the system for her own benefit.

The public was entitled to wonder what else might be in her past. But more crucially, it was entitled to form a judgment about her character.

Then came what seemed a climactic meltdown, when two respected senior Green MPs decided they could no longer, in conscience, share the same party ticket with her.

That exposed a nasty side of the Greens that the public hadn’t previously glimpsed. The recriminations were vicious until co-leader James Shaw pulled back from a vow to expel the two.

Shaw said he changed his mind after getting some sleep. I suspect the truth is that he realised how bad it looked for the Greens – who want everyone to think of them as a kind, gentle party that eschews bitchy politics – to be indulging in vengeful Stalinist bloodletting.

But by then it was too late. The damage was done.

And now Turei herself has gone, amid a nauseating display of self-pity and self-justification. “I wish I hadn’t had to do this,” she whimpered to a sympathetic John Campbell.

Well, she started it, and she should suck it up.


There’s irony on a Shakespearean scale in the fact that just when the Greens had high hopes of finally getting their feet under the cabinet table, the party has been brought crashing down by one woman’s hubris. But it’s great for the clean-nosed Ardern, who is now reaping a bountiful harvest of disenchanted Green voters. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Shakespeare would have loved it

Greens co-leader James Shaw on Q&A yesterday was saying he was shocked at the hatred for the poor that had been exposed since Metiria Turei went public about her benefit fraud. What bullshit. Turei is still being characterised by her admirers as courageous and virtuous. That’s bullshit too. She made a calculated and cynical political decision and it backfired spectacularly. While she was gazing down the track at a shimmering city of votes floating like a tantalising mirage in the distance, a 100-tonne locomotive was bearing down on her from behind.

Some people will consider Turei sainted no matter what she does, but I know Green voters who are repelled by her behaviour and likely to shift their support to Labour, especially now that it’s been re-energised by an appealing Jacinda Ardern.

If Turei has any humility, which I rather doubt, she will have learned a hard political lesson: that once you lift the lid on something from your past, you’re inviting the media to start digging into other things that you would prefer to remained buried. At that point you completely lose control of the agenda and just have to cop whatever comes at you. Shakespeare would have loved it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

There he goes again

I know Philip Matthews of the Christchurch Press is a capable journalist because I’ve read some good stories by him. So why does he write silly, admiring pieces about rock musicians’ drug habits?

In his latest effort, about a documentary film on the New Zealand band Head Like A Hole, Matthews seems enthralled by the fact that two of the band members were heroin users.

It’s not the first time Matthews has displayed this vicarious fascination with drug use. He did it several years ago in a review of the book Gutter Black, in which he wrote with undisguised awe about the role drugs played in the Auckland band Hello Sailor.

We know drugs are part of rock culture. We also know about the huge damage they’ve done and the talented lives that have been prematurely curtailed or derailed by them. Matthews himself writes that drugs were a “soul destroying” factor in the breakup of Head Like A Hole and left casualties, as they invariably do. 

Acknowledging that drugs were part of the band's story is one thing. Being thrilled by the destructive junkie lifestyle, as Matthews seems to be, is quite another. Whether intentionally or not, it has the effect of romanticising and glamorising something that's neither romantic nor glamorous. Isn't it time he grew out of this adolescent phase?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Key opens up to Australian interlocutor

An interesting interview with John Key by ABC current affairs presenter Tom Switzer on the Australian state broadcaster’s Radio National:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/2017-07-30/8749862

Freed from the constraint of having to weigh the political consequences of everything he says, Key is relaxed and expansive. He talks about his decision to quit (“It’s better to go when they want you to stay than to stay when they want you to go”), the National government’s response to the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes, housing and immigration, the flag, knights and dames, same-sex marriage, Helen Clark and the ponytail incident (“I did some dumb things,” he concedes).

Key remarks at the end that the New Zealand media will probably be miffed that he gave what is probably his most complete post-retirement interview to an Australian, and he may well be right. I’ve never been a fan of Key but I felt I understood him better after this interview than I did before. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Progress" has become a matter of what's possible

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 28.)

Some people fret about the threat posed to humanity by climate change. I fret about the threat posed to humanity by technology.

A couple of weeks ago, I used my smartphone to get directions to a motel that I’d booked in Auckland. I only wanted to know how to get there from Queen Street, but of course my phone interpreted the request literally.

Within moments it had mapped out a route all the way from my home in Masterton. It had plotted every turn along the way, precisely calculated the distance (602.2 km), estimated the travel time (7 hours and 25 minutes) and advised me how to avoid the Manawatu Gorge road closure.

This is very impressive. It’s also a bit scary. When a tiny, cheap phone packs more power than the computer that enabled men to land on the moon, I wonder what the limits might be – or indeed, whether there are any limits at all.

Am I a Luddite? I don’t think so. I depend on technology for my livelihood. But that doesn’t stop me worrying about its potential for bad as well as good.

By good, I mean stuff like having instant access to information and services on a scale and at a speed never before envisioned.

By bad I mean stuff like the Dark Web, the epidemic of internet porn, the exploitation of social media by terrorist groups, the rampant hijacking of personal privacy by digital giants such as Facebook, the rich opportunities created for online fraudsters via scams, hacking and ransomware attacks, the venom spread by malicious Internet trolls and the victimisation of vulnerable kids by text bullies.

And that’s just what we know about. Even more disconcerting is the stuff that hasn’t come to pass yet.

I worry about a world in which we’re at the mercy of algorithms which most of us don’t understand. I worry about a world in which we’re given no choice but to join the technological revolution, whether we want to or not. We are all sucked into its vortex.

Humanity, at least in the developed world, has surrendered its fate to technology whose power is advancing at such speed that it threatens to far outstrip our ability to control it or ensure it’s used wisely.

The digital revolution has placed enormous power in the hands of people who are beyond the reach of outdated accountability mechanisms – people for whom technological advance is often an end in itself, to be pursued with little regard for its effect on society. “Progress” has become a matter of what’s possible rather than what’s good.

At the most everyday level, the digital revolution has adversely affected how we relate to each other. In a park during the school holidays, everywhere I looked I saw young mums whose attention wasn’t on their kids but on their phones.

What, I wondered, could have been on their “devices” that was more important than spending quality time with their kids?

And don’t get me started on the business sector, which has eagerly embraced digital technology as a means of placing barriers between companies and the customers they supposedly serve.

The digital revolution has spawned a new language too. When I read articles about technology and its latest applications, I recognise most of the words, yet the meaning is indecipherable. They might as well be written in Sanskrit.

Does this matter? After all, doctors, scientists and lawyers communicate in their own exclusive jargon. But the difference is that digital technology reaches into virtually every corner of our lives, and will do so increasingly. We need to be able understand it, because how can we control what we don’t understand?

Most of all, I fret at the thought of what might still be coming. In a recent BBC radio documentary, computer scientists talked excitedly about the next great leap forward. It’s called quantum computing and it promises to take us to places we don’t even know about.

You could picture the gleam in these technicians’ eyes as they talked about potential “killer” applications. But they didn’t yet know what purposes quantum computing might be used for. It didn’t seem to matter that the problems it might solve are ones that haven’t yet been thought of.

There’s also talk of something called “the singularity” – the point at which computers will be capable of continual self-improvement; of designing and building machines far cleverer than us.

All this greatly excites the bright-eyed evangelists for the digital revolution, but it scares the hell out of me. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Catholicism and politics: a continuing story

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 26.)

Ever wondered why Britain has never had a Catholic prime minister?

Contrary to a popular misconception, there’s no constitutional barrier preventing it. So why hasn’t it happened?

The most likely explanation is that there remains a residual suspicion of Catholics that dates back to the bloody power struggles between Catholic and Protestant contenders for the throne several centuries ago. A gentleman named Guy Fawkes might have had something to do with it too.

Fears that Catholic politicians might secretly owe allegiance to Rome have never entirely been erased. Until 1829, Catholics weren’t even allowed to sit in the British parliament.

The closest Britain has come to getting a Catholic prime minister was Tony Blair, who regularly attended Mass with his Catholic wife when he was in No 10 Downing St, but waited until he had stood down before formalising his conversion.

Blair, who was nothing if not a shrewd calculator of political odds, knew that Catholicism would have been an impediment to his career. Besides, he wouldn’t have wanted to imperil the fragile Northern Ireland peace agreement by antagonising Protestants in the religiously divided province.

By comparison, we in New Zealand are relatively relaxed about Catholic politicians. We got our first Catholic premier, Frederick Weld, in 1864 and have had several Catholic prime ministers since then, including Labour hero Michael Joseph Savage, National’s Jim Bolger and of course Bill English.

This differentiates us not only from Britain but also America, which didn’t elect a Catholic president – John F Kennedy – until 1960. There hasn’t been another Catholic in the White House since then, despite Catholicism being the largest religious denomination in the US.

But while we in New Zealand might view lingering religious prejudices in other countries as rather quaint, there have been periods of religious tension in politics here too – especially in the early 20th century, when the Catholic Church in this country was led by bishops of Irish descent whose republican sympathies were at odds with staunchly pro-British governments.

Archbishop Francis Redwood and Dunedin’s Irish-born Bishop Patrick Moran were both outspoken supporters of Irish home rule – a cause energetically taken up by the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, which Moran founded.

The Irish issue famously caused political ructions when a priest named James Liston, later to become the long-serving and politically influential bishop of Auckland, was tried in 1922 on the rare charge of sedition. Liston had offended the government of William Massey, a Northern Ireland-born Protestant, by making a St Patrick’s Day speech in which he praised the IRA rebels behind the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916. Ironically, he was acquitted by an all-Protestant jury.

Even relatively recently, Catholicism has been suspected of wielding too much influence behind the scenes. Anti-Catholic resentment surfaced during 1970s debates over abortion and state aid to Catholic schools. Opposition to liberalisation of the abortion laws was often dismissed as being driven entirely by Catholics, which wasn’t the case.

I remember once interviewing the late John Kennedy, then the redoubtable editor of the aforementioned Tablet, who told me there was a feeling in New Zealand that the Catholics had to be watched.

That didn’t stop Kennedy stirring things up by writing a controversial editorial in 1972 supporting the election of a Labour government – this at a time when New Zealand newspapers rarely took political sides, at least not openly.

Kennedy’s editorial probably served to reinforce suspicions that there was a Catholic bloc vote and that Catholic voters did as they were told. It certainly did no harm to Norman Kirk and the Labour Party. They swept into power, ending 12 years under National.

Again ironically, Kennedy later became a supporter and confidant of the autocratic National prime minister Robert Muldoon, whose social conservatism aligned closely with his own.

And so we come to the present day, and the New Zealand Catholic bishops’ 2017 election statement, which was distributed to Mass attendees recently.  

Dear me. What a wishy-washy, touchy-feely, hand-wringing document it is.

Under section headings such as “Fair Tax Structure”, “Affordable Housing” and “Caring for our planet” it largely parrots the position of the centre-Left parties.  But it conspicuously stops short of any rigorous critical analysis, preferring to take refuge in facile generalisations and cosy platitudes.

It doesn’t come straight out and urge Catholics to vote for Labour or the Greens, but it might as well. In fact I would have more respect for the Catholic bishops if it did. At least they would then be nailing their colours to the mast openly and unequivocally, rather than disguising their soft-Left leanings behind coded signals.

That the statement was issued at all is telling. If I were a practising Catholic, I wouldn’t be impressed by the presumption that I relied on the bishops for guidance on how to vote – least of all when they appear to take the lazy option of suggesting Big Government can solve all our problems.

Will the bishops’ statement do anything to restore the flagging moral authority of the Church? I doubt it. But then I don’t think it will revive fears about Catholic leaders exerting too much influence either. Those days are long gone.